Ration debacle in Bengal – corruption, crisis, condoms

January 2, 2008

Ration debacle in Bengal

A The Statesman Report, December 20, 2007

Recently the West Bengal government, after facing violent protests throughout the state against large scale irregularities in the rationing system, has decided to distribute condoms through the ration shops.

This is perhaps to minimise the number of poor mouths to demand food from the government and thereby reduce its rationing responsibility. But condoms alone will not suffice to reduce the population as the government expects.

Patronising the huge influx from Bangladesh over the years and arranging for their ration cards for electoral gains, coupled with the growing educational backwardness of the poor people, as is clear from the state’s being at the top in respect of school dropouts in the country, will certainly thwart its intentions. Rather, it will be good for the government to find ways to redress the ration debacle to ensure social justice.

The agitation in the districts against the dismal public distribution system (PDS) reminds us of the days of the food movement of 1966 which was a major plank of the communists (the present rulers) against the misrule of the then Congress government. About eighty people were killed in police firing over the years between 1959 and 1966. But the present agitation has already taken a toll of fifteen lives, including eight suicides by ration dealers and their sons. The chief minister and the CPI-M leaders are seemingly little perturbed by the rationing agitation. Mr Biman Bose, the party’s state secretary, has said that the violence is due to the evil nexus among the opposition parties which want to disrupt the PDS.

On the other hand, people allege that it is the nexus among the ration dealers, CPI-M leaders and officials of the state food department which has deprived them of their due share of rationing items over a long period of time. This has fuelled their anger. They say that they have repeatedly pointed out their plight to those concerned without result and so took the law into their own hands. They saw food items which they are entitled to get as ration quotas being regularly siphoned off to be sold in the open market at higher prices. Moreover, conferences of different frontal organisations of the ruling parties are fed by the ration dealers among others.

In fact, people’s anger first burst into violence when such a conference of the CPI-M in a village in Bankura was going on (People in West Bengal ask for food, not nuclear nonsense). This led the village people to loot rationing items and even set ablaze houses of CPI-M leaders. Even police personnel coming to the rescue were attacked and their vehicles damaged. It is an irony that instead of taking measures to mitigate people’s ire, the CPI-M leaders organised armed processions. This could provoke the agitated people to unleash further violence in future.

PDS history and reform

The PDS was introduced throughout the country as a price support and price stabiliser programme for the consumers during the years of food shortage of the 1960s. But above all, it was considered as an important step to reduce poverty. Since the food crisis mostly affected the urban people, the PDS initially covered them only to provide rice, wheat, sugar, edible oil, soft coke and kerosene at subsidised prices.

But its impact on poverty alleviation was found to be meagre. In a study around the mid-1980s, it was seen that it could remove poverty by 1.66 percentage in the rural areas and 1.71 percentage in the urban areas after 20 years of existence. In absolute terms, only 1.21 crore of poor people out of a total of 27.4 crore were moved out of poverty by 1985. So, the coverage of the PDS was extended to rural areas in the states to fully get the status of a welfare programme. By 1985, the PDS, with a network of more than 4.62 lakh fair price shops distributing commodities worth Rs 30,000 crore annually to about 16 crore of families, became the largest distribution network of its kind in the world. But it could not come out of its problems like urban bias in terms of composition of sales, negligible coverage in poor states, wide leakages of the procured foodgrain and supply of inferior grains through the ration shops.

For curbing these, the PDS was needed to be further reformed with a focus on benefiting the poor most after being properly identified by the village panchayats to be listed with getting special cards and provided with foodgrain at specially subsidised prices. This targeted PDS (TPDS) was introduced in June 1997 under which each poor family of five persons was entitled to get 10 kg of foodgrain in a month which was gradually raised to 25 kg in July 2001. The price fixed was 48 per cent of the economic cost. In addition, 25 kg of foodgrain was to be provided to the poorest of the poor families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojona (AAY) at a further subsidised price of Rs 2 per kg for wheat and Rs 3 per kg for rice under the PDS. In this targeted scheme, the above poverty level (APL) families, although retaining the 1997 weekly allocation level of 10 kg of foodgrain, were, however, made non-beneficiaries of the subsidised prices. Thus the Centre began to supply food to the states to be distributed through the ration shops for the destitute, the BPL and the APL people. In West Bengal, 20,400 ration shops were assigned to distribute foodgrain to all such people.

Food items diverted

In West Bengal, the rationing system is being looked after by an extensive network of large contingent of officials, controllers, inspectors, sub-inspectors, financial advisers, accountants and political parties representing the shop level committees. There is the West Bengal Essential Commodities Act, 1953 to keep prices under control. Still the poor are not getting the subsidised items as those are being diverted to the open market to be sold at higher prices, thanks to large scale smuggling to Bangladesh. The yearly average diversion was 40 per cent for rice, 34 per cent for wheat and 24 per cent for sugar when for each, the national average was lower. As such diversion never received appropriate concern from the Left Front government, it has deprived cores of poor people of the increased subsidies of the Centre keeping the poverty ratio in the state high.

This has exposed the corruption indulged in by the nexus of ration dealers, party leaders and government officials. The fact is the Left Front government’s eternal failure to utilise its full budgetary provision for purchasing the TPDS items and the more pathetic annual public procurement have accentuated the food shortage and increased corruption over time. The APL people were larger victims this time as their quota of food off-take remained fully unutilised for the last three years. Despite this, the state often tries to by-pass its responsibility by being critical that the Centre is not giving it its due share of food and money and thereby jeopardising Bengal’s rationing system.

While the state could not lift its full quota of foodgrain from the central pool nor procure enough food, it has indulged in issuing and maintaining of fake ration cards, numerically around 50 lakh, to put immense pressure on the PDS to cause its further downfall. But against these, many of the BPL listed people have not got the cards to be deprived of the food allotted for them. All these have gradually led to the shrinking of food availability to all types of people making the system of public distribution in the state virtually defunct. As a result, West Bengal could only make it to the low rank of 17th in respect of efficient running of the PDS in a study of 24 states by the Public Affairs Centre titled The State of India’s Public Services. Tamil Nadu acquired the top and Arunachal Pradesh the bottom rankings. People’s resentment has really given a chance to the West Bengal government to overhaul the rationing system by uprooting corruption so that it can really be helpful to remove poverty. The present violence should be taken as a warning call to revamp the system to avoid its further worsening leading to food riots.